Book: With Rifle and Shovel:The 51st Pioneer Infantry Regiment in WWI


The men of the 51st Pioneer Infantry were mostly draftees. While other soldiers fought with rifles, they used shovels. They also saw combat. As shells went off around them, the pioneers filled holes with rubble collected from destroyed villages. Those roads were the battlefield lifeline, allowing troops and supplies to move forward, while ambulances took the wounded back to hospitals. They cleared the roads that had been booby-trapped by the retreating German Army. They marched at night to hide from the enemy. After the Armistice, they marched into Germany to be part of the Army of Occupation. The Pioneer Infantry provided labor where ever and when ever needed, including guarding railways and bridges, and burying the dead. This book combines information found in archives and a variety of other sources. The material has been blended into a new product that tells the story of the 51st Pioneer Infantry Regiment. It is intended to be both a narrative and a reference for those researching this Regiment.








“This is a fine book that gives us an idea of what the Pioneer Infantry Regiments did during World War I. Since not much is written about these units, and there are almost no published first-hand accounts, this book will be a good starting point for further research. McMahon has mined a lot of primary source material and has included photographs and information from the descendants of unit members. This is an important addition to our knowledge of US World War I units; recommended!”

-Peter L. Belmonte, author of Days of Perfect Hell: The U.S. 26th Infantry Regiment in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, October-November 1918
Calabrian-Americans in the US Military During World War I: Cosenza-Area Immigrants: Marano Marchesato and Marano Principato (Calabrian Americans in World War I)


“This is wonderful. My grandmother would have been so pleased to see her big brother in a book like this. Gordon’s journal was very informative, but this gives me a much better idea of the context. Thank you very much for all your hard work. It’s very much appreciated.”

– Roxy Treibel, Great-niece of Corp. Gordon Van Kleeck, 51st Pioneer Ingfantry Regiment, Co. K.



“For someone whose knowledge of WWI didn’t go much past trenches, gassing, horses died too (War Horse) and “11th hour, 11th day…,” this book has been a primer on how the war played out day to day for troops on the ground. As my grandfather was in the same unit as the author’s, she saved me hours and hours of reading the primary source documents and figuring out how they all fit together: where and when he left the U.S. (Hoboken, NJ, on a troop ship which was a purloined commercial passenger liner), where he landed in France (not Brest), how the troops were moved from the port to the front (by train), that some troops rode in freight and cattle cars (which made me shiver, given how the Nazis used the same cars 25 years later), 40 men per car (Nazis: 150 people per car), what the men in this company actually did daily (repair roads and bridges in advance of troops movement, while under fire, crawl out of trenches and cut barbed wire at night before daybreak advances), and who knew there was an occupation of Germany between the Armistice and the Treaty of Versailles? Of course there was. What if Germany hadn’t signed that treaty? Some men didn’t get to go home until mid-1919. Several extremely rare, previously unpublished soldier’s diaries fill out the story in a manner that will be relevant to many units beyond the Pioneers, especially soldiers from New York State (origin of the Pioneers) for commonalities of hometowns, enlisting with buddies, timing, process.”

– feetonthegroundnyc

With Rifle and Shovel can be found at:

Please contact us for discounts for multiple orders.


Home of the Unofficial Historian of the 51st Pioneer Infantry

Welcome to the

Home of the Unofficial Historian of the

51st Pioneer Infantry Regiment

This page is intended to provide resources to the those descendants and researchers of the 51st Pioneer Infantry Regiment.

With Rifle and Shovel:

The 51st Pioneer Infantry Regiment in WWI

is now available on Amazon 

Contact us to find out about group discounts.

Our newest book about the U.S. Pioneer Infantry Regiments in WWI

is now available on Amazon 

Contact us to find out about group discounts.

Please join the discussion and connect

51st Pioneer Infantry Group on Facebook

Our WWI Blog Posts (selected)

Some of these posts are directly related to the 51st Pioneer Infantry Regiment, while others are for more general WWI research. You can visit our blog at, and search for “51st” or “WWI”.

Virtual Cemetery

The Findagrave Virtual Cemetery be found at:

51st Pioneer Infantry Regiment (WWI)

Do you have a grave or other material to add to this virtual cemetery? Contact us. (You do not have to signup for the newsletter to submit a question or comment, but you are certainly welcome to.)


The webpage for Gordon Van Kleeck of Company F and his war-time diary.

Our WWI Videos

WWI Researching Your Soldier by State








North Carolina







Martin, Clarence S, and Louis H Clark, “From Three Quarters of a Century with the Tenth Infantry New York National Guard 1860-1935”, 1936.

Thisted, Moses N. “Pershing’s Pioneers”, 1980. Message Board for the 51st Pioneer Infantry Regiment.

WWI Resources

WWI Centennial Commission: WWI Genealogical Research Resources

Online World War I Indexes and Records – USA This is a great resource, but is not comprehensive.

World War I in Photos: Soldiers and Civilians

U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center’s World War I Holdings This links to a 937-page PDF document containing a finding aid for source materials “The War to End All Wars”.

Data on U.S. Army Divisions during World War I

The U.S. Army Center of Military History (CMH) World War I Era Narrative History, Historical Resources. Lesson Plans, Commemorative Pamphlets, Commemorative Events, Historical Timeline and more.

WWI Fact Sheet from the U.S. Army Center of Military History.

Roll of Honor: Citizens of the State of New York who Died While in the Service of the United States During the World War, New York (State). Adjutant General’s Office, J.B. Lyon Company, 1922 – World War, 1914-1918 – 402 pages. (Organized by county.)

St. Mihiel Trip-Wire

This page is brought to you by “Researching Your U.S. WWI Army Ancestors”. Learn more about the book here.








Finding Melville S. Bulmer in the 51st Pioneer Infantry and Beyond

Recently, I won auctions on ebay for a letter and some postcards written by a member of the 51st Pioneer Infantry. The letter was a pleasant, newsy conversation with the folks back home. The author mentioned the loss of his own Brother, his enjoyment of a pass to visit Coblenz on his birthday, and his goal of pastoral studies. At night he taught soldiers how to read and write. He mentioned his thoughts turning to his home “in the thick of the fight”.




I decided to do some investigation into the author of the letter. Since he was not in my family, I decided that constructing a skeleton of his timeline would be sufficient. Had he been a family member, the search would have been taken farther, using more and varied sources. The sources and techniques I used are suitable for beginners, and demonstrate how much you can learn about an ancestor’s life.

The first sources I used were:

  1. New York State service summaries at (New York, Abstracts of World War I Military Service, 1917-1919)
  2. Census records
  3. Newspapers
  4. Google search


New York State Service summaries

At first I had a little trouble reading his handwriting. I have done enough transcription to know that you have to get to know the way letter are formed to decipher handwriting.




In this case, I knew that there would be a New York State Service Summary card for this veteran. These are most easily found on, but they can be ordered from the New York State Archives. As an added check, I could compare the serial number he wrote on the letter with the one on the Service card. Cairo, NY, also matched the destination of the letter. I was able to use wildcards in my searches and came up with:




Some timeline dates extracted from this record are:

  • 22 Jan 1894  – born
  • 27 May 1918 – inducted
  • 10 July 1919 – honorably discharged


The Census Records

Since I have a subscription on, I was able to view the U.S. census records from 1900-1940, and the N.Y. Census records for 1905, 1915. I could not find him in the 1925 N.Y. Census, so I needed to find his location in that year to determine if he might be out of state.

The censuses are a wonderful backbone for a timeline.

  • 1905 – living in Brooklyn, Kings, NY with his parents and siblings (May W, James W, Clarence H)
  • 1910 – living in Cairo, Greene, NY with his parents and siblings (May W, James W, Clarence H)
  • 1915 – living in Cairo, Greene, NY with his parents and two brothers (Wesley, Clarence)
  • 1920 – living in Brooklyn, Kings, NY with his parents and one brother (James W), industry is export house
  • 1930 – living in Ridgefield, Fairfield, CT with his wife, daughter and mother, occupation is clergman [sic], industry is methodist pic. [sic]
  • 1940 – living in Stratford, Fairfield, CT with his wife and daughter, industry is clergy

From the 1930 U.S. Census, his marriage was estimated to be 1923.

  • 1923 – marriage also had an index entry for his birth, which agreed with the date on his service summary.

  • 22 Jan 1894 – born in Brooklyn



Several newspaper results showed up on I was conducting a search for vital information, so I selected a marriage announcement and a death notice. Since he was the pastor of a church, his name showed up as the officiant in some marriage stories.




So I can add to the timeline:

  • 7 Dec 1960 – The Reverend Melville Stevens Bulmer died


And several other items without dates:

Served pastorates in: Kirkville, NY, Cold Spring Harbor, Westhampton L.I., Ridgefield

Graduate of: Syracuse University, Drew Theological Seminary, New York University

Studied in: Grenoble University, France

This website contains U.S. and Canadian newspapers, including Brooklyn Eagle.



  • 15 Oct 1918 – his brother Clarence Bulmer died

An online family tree suggested that he died of influenza. Yearbook Collection

1919 – The school yearbook of Syracuse University, The Onondagen, lists him as a Junior. It had a picture of him.



1920 – He is listed in the Syracuse University Service List.




Other Vital Records

Indexes to New York vital records can be found at:

I was able to search for Melville Bulmer in the Grooms Index, and cross referenced it to the Brides record.

  • 4 May 1923 – marriage to Bertha Margaret Whiting



Through a few Google searches, I learned more about Melville Bulmer. He was a:

  • Pastor in Westhampton, NY
  • Pastor in CT

He was mentioned in a page about the 300th anniversary of Stratford, Connecticut. There was a picture of him on the page, but it was a small one of him sitting on a stage at a presentation.

One result included a short biography which mentioned his and a chapel named for him. He and his wife both died in 1960. The Stratford United Methodist Church named the Bulmer Memorial Chapel for him.

  • 1935 – 1960 Rev. Melville Bulmer, Senior Pastor, Stratford United Methodist Church

So we can add to the timeline:

  • 1923-27 Pastor at Westhampton United Methodist Church in Westhampton, NY
  • 1935 – 1960 Rev. Melville Bulmer, Senior Pastor, Stratford United Methodist Church
  • 1960 – he and his wife passed away

He graduated Syracuse University cum laude.

After graduation, he worked in the financial department of the American Trading Co

He graduated from Drew Seminary

1953 he was ordained

He received a Master’s Degree in Social Psychology from New York University.

He preached in Methodist Churches in:

Northampton, NY, Ridgefield, CT, and Stratford, CT



Going Deeper

If he were my ancestor, I would search deeper by examining more sources:

  • Birth, marriage and death records in the appropriate archives
  • City Directories
  • School yearbooks
  • Back to NARA for additional information in RG165
  • Contacting the Churches where he served as Pastor
  • Connecting with other descendants through online family trees
  • Finding the newspaper and article he mentioned in his letter




Anchor’s Aweigh: Getting the 51st Pioneer Infantry to France and Back

Anchor’s Aweigh: Getting the 51st Pioneer Infantry to France and Back

The history of the 51st Pioneer Infantry included information about the ships that brought Joseph McMahon to France and back home again. Gathering images and more information about these ships fleshes out the details of his WWI service.


From U.S. to Brest, France

On 29 July 1918 the 51st Pioneer Infantry left Camp Merritt, NJ, and marched to Alpine Landing. From there they were placed on ferries to Hoboken, NJ. Then they boarded the steamer USS Kroonland. On 8 Aug 1918 the U.S.S. Kroonland arrived in Brest, France in the rain.

The U.S.S. Kroonland brought troops to France six times. She also made postwar trips, then was returned to International Mercantile Marine Company.

The journal of Gordon Van Kleeck, a private in Company F of the U.S. 51st Pioneer Infantry, includes the story of the crossing. The soldiers wore overalls rather than uniforms, and sat in the lifeboats during the early morning until sunrise in case there was a submarine attack. You can read Pvt. Van Kleeck’s journal at:

Brest was the location of the American Naval Headquarters in France. More than 30 destroyers and multiple yachts escorted troop and supply convoys were based at Brest.

While the Kroonland sailed past St. Mathieu lighthouse through LeGoulet Channel into Bay of Brest, French and British airplanes flew low looking for submarines. Several lighter-than-air blimp ships flew low in front of the convoy.

The image below shows the U.S.S. Kroonland at the New York Navy Yard, on 24 July 1918, just before its trip to bring the 51st to France. It is painted in “dazzle” camouflage.

Anchor aweigh - 1 - Kroonland
Photo courtesy of U.S. Navy,  photo NH 52093, Source: Naval History & Heritage Command (NHHC).

Below, an airship escorts a convoy into Brest Harbor in 1918.

Anchor aweigh - 3 - Airship escorts convoy
Photo courtesy of U.S. Navy photo NH 121616. Source: Naval History & Heritage Command (NHHC)

This picture shows a landing at Brest, France, 8 August 1919.

Anchor aweigh - 4 - Landing at Brest 1919
Photo courtesy of U.S. Navy photo NH 965. Source: Naval History & Heritage Command (NHHC)


From St. Nazaire, France to the United States

On 23 June 1919 the 51st Pioneer Infantry sailed from St. Nazaire on the U.S.S. Wilhelmina. On 3 July 1919 they arrived in New York harbor After the Armistice she made 7 round trips returning the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) troops from France. She was decommissioned on or after 6 Aug 1919 and on 16 Aug 1919 she was returned to the Matson Navigation Company. She was originally bought to carry passengers and cargo between the west coast of the US and Hawaii. She purchased by a British shipping company was sunk by a U-boat in 1940 while in a convoy between Nova Scotia and Liverpool.

The USS Wilhelmina is shown in front of a coaling facility at the New York Navy Yard on 1 May 1918, painted in dazzle camouflage.

Anchor aweigh - 2 - Wilhelmina

Photo courtesy of U.S. Navy photo NH 47885. Source: Naval History & Heritage Command (NHHC).


Dazzle ships

The dazzle camoflauge patterns were painted on the ships in grey, black and blue. They were effective at distorting a ship’s silhouette and making it harder for the enemy to estimate a ship’s type, size, speed, and heading. You can read more about the dazzle ships at The Vintage News.

To learn more about ships in your ancestor’s history I recommend visiting the websites for the Naval History and Heritage Command Photography CollectionNav Source Naval History  and Wikipedia.

Looking for the 51st Pioneers in the New York State Military Museum

The New York State Military Museum and Veterans Research Center is part of the New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs (DMNA). It is located in Saratoga Springs, NY.

This blog post takes you on a tour of the Museum’s website. Hopefully will inspire those who have military ancestors from New York to investigate the material that can be found. Remember to look not only for your ancestor, but for information about the places and times that s/he served. Letters from or pictures of contemporaries may shed light on your ancestor’s experiences. (This approach might help you when you search the websites of military museums in other states.)

My particular interest is about the 51st Pioneer Infantry in World War I. The 51st Pioneer Infantry was formed from New York’s State 10th Infantry Regiment.

Since the Museum can only take request via mail, I did send them a letter and a small contribution. In the letter I told them that I was researching my Grandfather and the 51st Pioneer Infantry. I also shared a copy of my Grandfather’s Service Summary Card in case that would help, or prevent them from duplicating work that had already been done. I received information about the 10th in World War I, and the information that the digitized images that I found in their inventory were not yet available on the website.




When you start, learn About the Museum.




Here you can learn about the holdings of the museum, as well as its location and hours. Key information is that you have to send your research inquiries by mail, as they do not have the staff to handle telephone requests.

Click on Research to find out what Resources they have online.




Veteran Burial Locations links to a page with links for Civil War Burial Cards and a link to a the New Horizons Genealogy website’s collection of Revolutionary War Graves of Soldiers Buried in New York. We are warned this list may be incomplete.

Scrolling down there is a link to Digitized Books. Click on it to see which digitized books are available on the Museum website.




The Digitized books were worth checking out. “New York in the War of the Rebellion” might be interesting another time.

If you are a New York State veteran, you can select the link for Veteran’s Oral History, where you can learn about how to fill in a questionnaire, learn about the methods to record your history, or find a self-interview packet.

Click on the Unit History Project to view the New York State Unit History Project collecting Unit Histories for major conflicts. The website advertises that it is updated weekly.




I clicked on World War One, and the current offerings are shown below.




To search the collections, select Search from the menu on the left side.




There is a choice of topics to search. To search everything except the roster database, select Search everything.




In the unit field, I entered: 51st Pioneer Infantry




Click on the Submit Query button.

The results were in a book about Armories.




Searching for Keyword: Joseph McMahon gave no results. (To check I was doing this correctly, I went back and searched for the surname of a soldier who appeared in the search results. It worked.)

Searching for Unit: 51st and Conflict WW1 gave no results.

So, I searched for Unit: 51st



The results included World War, 1914-1918 United States. Army; World War, 1914-1918; and the unit United States. Army. Pioneer Infantry, 51st (1917-1919).

The results also included New York Infantry 51st Regiment in the Civil War.




A couple of interesting entries were:




In the Photographs section there were several entries for the 51st Pioneer Infantry.





I did click through to the record description, but the links to the pictures were not working. I contacted the Museum and asked about the pictures and was told that they had been scanned, but not loaded onto the web server.




The individual records contain great information. Remember that you are looking for your ancestor, and also for pictures about the times where and when s/he served.

Good hunting and let me know if your find anything!